By: Mitchell Felker
Just thirteen days after setting his career high with 50 points, James Harden did himself one better and dropped in 51 in the win against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night. It was the ninth 50-point game in Rockets history, as Harden added his name next to Hakeem the Dream and Moses Malone as the only Rockets' players to hit that mark twice, and the first to do it in the same season.
Harden was virtually un-guardable all night, scoring at will from all over the court. He was especially deadly from deep, hitting 8-9 from three. But Harden wasn't just getting buckets, he also filled the stat sheet with 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. He scored 10 of the Rockets last 11 points to close the fourth quarter, but actually missed his last two free throws which could have pushed his big night even higher.
And the Rockets needed every point Harden could muster because the Kings hung around all night, thanks in large part to DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins (24 pts, 21 rebs and 10 ast and 6 blocks) was simply too long and too strong for the Rockets hodgepodge frontcourt, on the way to his second career triple-double.
Omri Casspi (18 pts, 7 rebs, 4 ast and 4 stl) did his best to make the Rockets rue the day they released him last off-season, doing as much as anyone could to slow Harden, and finished with a plus minus of +13. The next closest Kings' player was former Rocket Carl Landry's +2. The Kings did have six players in double figures, and they shot 50% from both the field (48-96) and from three (7-14).
Sacramento feasted on the Rockets at the rim, scoring 35 of their 48 buckets from inside the paint. The thin frontline for Houston certainly didn't help, but there were also numerous plays where the Rockets missed the offensive rebound or turned the ball over and just didn't get enough bodies back on defense.
But even with the Kings battling back from every deficit and making it close at the end, you never really got the sense that the Rockets might lose. And it wasn't just Harden's doing, either. The Rockets shot 40 three-pointers, making 18. Houston is 8-4 this season when shooting 40 or more threes. Trevor Ariza continued his hot streak, making 6-14 three-pointers and was his usual irritating self on defense. Joey Dorsey added 7 points and 11 rebounds, 7 on the offensive glass.
Terrence Jones made his first appearance since an elbow to the midsection caused his lung to collapse, and absolutely stuffed the stat sheet in his 32 minutes. Jones scored 16 points on 6-10 shooting (2-3 3pt) with 7 boards (3 offensive), 3 assists, 1 steal and a career-high 7 blocks. Five of Jones' blocks came on two different possessions, blocking Casspi twice around the rim in the first quarter, and then rejecting three different Carl Landry layups near the end of the first half. But it wasn't all rosy for Jones, as he looked winded in the fourth quarter and he (-15) and Corey Brewer (-8) were the only Rockets' players with a negative plus/minus.
Clint Capela only played 10 minutes, but had two more big dunks and finished with a +9 overall, second-highest for Houston. For the second consecutive game he showed how effective hovering near the rim and keeping the paint clear can really be. Here's hoping that Dwight Howard is still paying attention and still intent on not changing the offense when he's back to full-time.
But as usual, James Harden was the real story. It seems as though everyone in the national media has reserved the MVP for Steph Curry, but if Harden can win a scoring title and/or carry this beat-up, constantly fluctuating roster to the 2-seed, I just can't fathom anyone passing him over for the award. Curry has been great and so have the Warriors, but they've also been the healthiest team in the league this season, and his degree of difficulty hasn't been anywhere near the realm of Harden's.
Now that Pat Beverley is done for the year, the Rockets got exactly two games out of their opening day starting-five. Harden's cast of characters has continuously changed, but night-in and night-out he's been exactly what the Rockets have needed: an MVP.